Guest article #61 by Margareta Wahlström, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction
Around 20% of the Earth is at risk from at least one natural hazard and more than half the world’s six billion plus population is exposed. In a matter of minutes, at least one hazard can change the world they know. Only through incorporating risk into development planning can we start to reduce this exposure.
In general, the poorest are the most disproportionally affected by disasters. Poorer countries cannot absorb repeated disaster costs. In the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Honduras’ President, Carlos Roberto Flores said damages totaling US$6 billion had destroyed 50 years of progress. Following the Indus River floods in Pakistan, the provincial Punjabi Authority allocated most of the development budget to disaster response with little likelihood of replenishment. Essentially, these losses nullify investments made by poorer countries to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.
Indeed, the costs of disasters are challenging the very basis of investments. The earthquake in Haiti completely devastated one of the world’s poorest countries. The Pakistan floods disrupted economic growth, agricultural production, and cost around US$12 billion. The Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 caused at least US$300 billion in damage; floods in Australia in 2010 cost US$10 billion; while an earthquake in the same year in New Zealand cost upward of US$5.5 billion. And cities with fast growing populations in hazard prone areas will incur larger costs to pay for the damage and losses that will occur with increasing frequency.
Yet it is not just the costs of a major disaster exposed by the media. From 1989 to 2010, 19 countries reported the destruction of 63,667 schools, 4,873 health facilities with damage to 73,000 kilometres of roads, 3,605 municipal water systems, 4,400 sewer systems and 6,980 power installations. An average of 68% of the damage was caused by frequently occurring, low severity extensive disasters.
Given these facts it is surprising very few countries have public investment budgets that include risk-criteria. Moreover, the international community has yet to fully recognize that if global, sustained and equitable development is to be achieved, then disaster reduction, climate change adaptation and poverty eradication must shape future development plans whether in energy, water or other public goods.
The 2011 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, the 2011 Global Risk Assessment Report “Revealing Risk, Redefining Development” and the Mid-term Review of the Hyogo Framework for Action (2011) all highlighted the absence of risk sensitive development strategies. The 2,600 participants at the Platform representing billions of people were unified in the conviction that now is the turning point for concrete action to manage disaster and climate risk.
The goal therefore is to protect development investments and lives. Risk reduction’s inclusion in national development plans, especially in hazard zones, should be an informed choice. The recent endorsement by the Maldives’ Parliament for the world’s first Strategic National Action Plan, which integrates risk reduction and climate change adaptation, is a landmark achievement. Peru, Indonesia and Viet Nam are also making rapid progress to mitigate against the risks to their development. Others will surely follow once the decision is made to reduce the impact of climate and disaster risk.
The business and corporate community understands risk management and will without doubt support government action to reduce risk. Enterprises sensitized to risk recognize the need to protect supply lines as well as to ensure healthy workforces and customers who continue to consume. This requires protection of physical assets, infrastructure and the health as well as welfare of people.
Many leaders are realizing the enormous costs that disasters incur. President Yudhoyono of Indonesia has agreed to be a Global Champion for Risk Reduction. Senator Loren Lagarda of the Philippines has been a tireless advocate and promoter of risk reduction. The Honourable Abdou Sane, a Senegalese Parliamentarian, is a West African Champion of risk reduction, and Mayor Marcelo Eberard of Mexico City is a Champion for resilient cities.
We know what to do to reduce the impacts of natural hazards; an integrated approach to development planning, like that of the Maldives, that encompasses climate change adaptation and risk reduction. Climate change begets natural hazards – risk reduction lessens disaster impacts. The latter is a development imperative that will help to anticipate events well in advance, reduce the suffering of millions, and help avert catastrophes that warrant massive humanitarian responses.